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The Ship in Distress

[ Roud 807 ; Master title: The Ship in Distress ; Ballad Index ShH90 ; VWML GB/6a/185 , COL/3/23 , RoudFS/S221288 ; Bodleian Roud 807 ; Mudcat 22872 ; trad.]

Jim Copper of Rottingdean sang You Seamen Bold [ VWML COL/3/23 ] to Peter Kennedy on 1 August 1951. This recording was included in 2012 on the Topic anthology of ballads sung by British and Irish traditional singers, Good People, Take Warning (The Voice of the People Volume 23). Bob Copper sang Seamen Bold (Ship in Distress) in 1971 on the Copper Family's Leader album, A Song for Every Season, and in 1998 on their CD Coppersongs 3. He also sang You Seamen Bold at a concert with Bob Lewis at Nellie’s Folk Club, The Rose and Crown Hotel, Tonbridge, Kent, on 17 October 1999. This concert was released in 2017 on their Musical Traditions CD The Two Bobs' Worth.

A.L. Lloyd sang this ballad from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs in about 1956 on his, Ewan MacColl's and Harry H. Corbett's album The Singing Sailor. This track has been reissued lots of times, e.g. on their albums Shanties and Fo'c'sle Songs (Wattle Records) and Haul on the Bowlin' (Stinson Records) and on the compilation CD Sailors' Songs & Sea Shanties. Lloyd commented in the Haul on the Bowlin' sleeve notes:

The story of the ship adrift, with its crew reduced to cannibalism but rescued in the nick of time, has a fascination for makers of sea legends. Cecil Sharp, who collected more than a thousand songs from Somerset, considered The Ship in Distress to be the grandest tune he had found in that country.

Louis Killen sang The Ship in Distress in 1964 on the Topic anthology Farewell Nancy: Sea Songs and Shanties. This album was reissued with bonus tracks in 1993 as the CD Blow the Man Down: A Collection of Sea Songs and Shanties. Again, A.L. Lloyd commented in the liner notes:

A 16th century Portuguese ballad, La Nau Catarineta, told of a ship in distress with the starving crew casting lots at to who should be killed and eaten (the sands of Portugal are spotted just in time). Catarineta, a powerful symbol of Portugal's golden age of navigation, was imitated in many European countries. England seems to have got her version from the French ballad La Corte Paille (The Short Straw). Evidently the song was very common in the south of England. George Butterworth turned up several versions in Sussex, half a century ago. Words and tune here are from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

Martin Carthy recorded Ship in Distress for his 1968 album with Dave Swarbrick, But Two Came By; it was reissued on the compilation album This Is... Martin Carthy. He commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

The Ship in Distress was the subject of a parody by [W.M.] Thackeray, which itself is sung frequently in folk song clubs, Little Billie [Roud 905], but the sense of the song is the same. Becalmed for days and out of food the crew of a ship draw lots for which of them shall die and serve as food for the rest to give some of them a last chance of survival. One is selected, and while keeping his last watch before his death, is delivered by the sight of a rescue ship.

A live version from 17 February 1990 at McCabe's Guitar Shop, Santa Monica, California, was included in the Dave Swarbrick anthology Swarb!. (Byker Hill on the album Life and Limb is from the same gig.) Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick recorded this song for a third time for their 2006 album Straws in the Wind. Carthy commented:

On the face of it, it seems clear that Ship in Distress, with its theme of cannibalism narrowly averted, was the model for W.M. Thackeray's spoof Little Billee. However according to A.L. Lloyd, both songs have a common root in a French song entitled La Courte Paille (The Short Straw) where the prospective dinner / cabin boy sees Babylon and the coast of Barbary at the moment of his deliverance. Dave and I have been doing this song for the last forty years or so and for us it retains its majesty and its horror. And all in just three verses.

The Jones Boys sang The Ship in Distress on their 2010 album Like the Sun A-Glittering. Gordon Jackson noted on their website:

Versions of The Ship in Distress are to be found in various collections, including Cecil Sharp’s One Hundred English Folksongs, first published in 1916. A country singer, James Bishop, of Priddy, Somerset, gave Sharp his version [ VWML CJS2/9/735 ] . However, it would seem that the song’s story was known, and probably originated, overseas, with versions found in France, Portugal, Scandinavia and Brazil.

The basic story is that, following a shipwreck, the survivors, adrift in a lifeboat, are faced with a stark choice: starve or eat one of their fellows. Although our version doesn’t specifically mention cannibalism, the other versions make it plain. However, before the unfortunate young man is killed he spies a ship (or sometimes a coast) and they are all saved.

There is a discussion of the song’s provenance here.

The words I use are those sung by Martin Carthy, but I have changed the tune. I came across an Irish song called Bold Doherty, which, to be honest, I found rather tedious. It went on for quite a while and was about … buying a pair of shoes! However, I quite liked the aeolian mode tune, which was in 3/4. I played around with it a bit, reset it in 7/8, then reset it again in a syncopated 4/4. I cast around for a song to set to this reworked tune and eventually settled on The Ship in Distress. I was reluctant at first because I really like the 5/4 dorian tune I had more or less grown up with, but I was determined to use this new tune, so I overcome my reluctance and went for it.

What sounds like an electric guitar solo in the middle is actually an octave mandola. There is a bit of quiet electric guitar, played by our co-producer/engineer, Simon Marchant, on the fade.

Arthur Knevett sang Ship in Distress on his 2016 CD Simply Traditional. He noted:

This song was collected by George Butterworth in Sussex and is included in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. The suggestion in this song that, provisions having run out, a crew member is to be sacrificed and eaten by the rest of the crew is not so fantastic as it may at first seem. In 1884 a yacht called The Mignonette left Falmouth on a voyage to Australia. During a storm the yacht sank and the crew were cast adrift in an open boat. The meagre provisions they had on board ran out after 19 days. They cast lots to see who should be killed to afford the others sustenance. A boy named Richard Parker drew ‘the short straw’ and was killed. The crew eventually reached Falmouth and the captain and mate were arrested and convicted of murder. The sentences were eventually commuted to six months imprisonment. (Full details can be found in the Falmouth Harbour Commissioners Minutes held in the Bartlett Library at the National Maritime Museum, Falmouth.)

Andy Turner sang the Copper Family's version of Seamen Bold as the 19 April 2019 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Granny's Attic sang Ship in Distress on their 2019 CD Wheels of the World. They noted:

Cohen [Braithwaite-Kilcoyne] found this song in Cecil Sharp's Folk Songs from Somerset, in which Sharp comments that this is “in many respects, the grandest air that [he had] recovered in Somerset”. Sharp collected Ship in Distress from Mr James Bishop of Rookham Farm, Priddy [ VWML RoudFS/S221288 ] , who he believed to be “one of the finest folk-singers”. Mr Bishop believed that the song, being challenging, would die with him, since no family members other than him, his father and his grandfather, were able to sing it. Fortunately for us, this song did not die, thanks to the hard work of Cecil Sharp and the singing ability of James Bishop. Although, Mr Bishop was right; this was definitely a very challenging song to learn.


Martin Carthy sings Ship in Distress

You seamen bold who plough the ocean
See dangers landsmen never know.
'Tis not for honour or promotion;
No tongue can tell what they undergo.
In the blusterous wind and the great dark water
Our ship went drifting on the sea,
Her rigging gone, and her rudder broken,
Which brought us to extremity.

For fourteen days, heartsore and hungry,
Seeing but wild water and bitter sky,
Poor fellows all stood in a totter,
A-casting lots as to who should die.
Their lot it fell on Robert Jackson,
Whose family was so great.
“I'm free to die, but oh, me comrades,
Let me keep look-out till the break of day.”

A full dressed ship like the sun a-glittering
Came bearing down to their relief.
As soon as this glad news was shouted,
It banished all their care and grief.
Our ship brought to, no longer drifting,
Safe in Saint Vincent, Cap Verde, she lay.
You seamen all, who hear my story,
Pray you'll ne'er suffer the like again.

Bob Copper sings Ship in Distress

You seamen bold that plough the ocean
Know dangers landsmen never know,
The sun goes down with an equal motion
No tongue can tell what you undergo.
In dreadful storm, in dread of battle
There are no back doors to run away
While thund'ring cannon loudly rattle,
Mark well what happened the other day.

A merchant ship a long time had sail-ed,
Long time being captive out at sea.
The weather proved so unsettled
Which brought them to extremity.
Nothing on board, poor souls, to cherish
Nor could step one foot on freedom's shore,
Poor fellows they were almost starving,
There was nothing left but skin and bone.

Their cats and dogs how they did eat them
Their hunger being so very severe,
Captain and men in one position,
Captain and men went equal share.
But still at last a hitch came on them,
A hitch came on them right speedily,
Captain and men stood in a totter
Casting out lots to know who should die.

The lot it fell on one poor sailor
His family being so very great.
Those very words did he grieve sorrow
Those very words did he regret,
I'm willing to die my brother mess-mates
If you to the top-mast will haste away,
And perhaps you might some sail discover
While I unto our dear Lord do pray.

Those very words did he grieve sorrow
Those very words did he regret,
When a merchant ship there came a-sailing
There came a-sailing to their delight.
May God protect all jolly sailors
Who boldly venture on the main
And keep them free from all such trials
Never to hear the likes again.

Acknowledgements and Links

Lyrics taken from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, ed. Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd, Penguin, 1959:96, and adapted to the actual singing of Martin Carthy by Garry Gillard.